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Years later, the Philippines puts an end to Duterte’s brutal drug war

When Rodrigo Duterte ran for president eight years ago, he promised to order the police and military to find drug users and traffickers and kill them, promising immunity for such killings. In the months that followed, police and vigilantes mercilessly gunned down tens of thousands of people in summary executions.

Even now, two years after Mr. Duterte left office, the spate of killings has received little judicial attention, with only eight police officers receiving prison sentences in connection with just four cases, including one ruling this month. And while human rights groups say there have been fewer such killings since Duterte left office, and far fewer killings involving government agents, a culture of violence and impunity has maintained a disturbing grip on the Philippines.

In recent months, the legacy of Duterte’s so-called war on drugs has slowly received more official attention. Lawmakers are holding several public hearings on the violence. Senior police officers spoke at the congressional hearing, as did the victims’ relatives, who relived their horrors and once again called for justice.

When Duterte left office, his government said 6,252 people had been killed by security forces — all described by officials as “drug suspects.” Rights groups say the total death toll is around 30,000.

It is unlikely that Duterte will face any consequences from the congressional hearings; he was asked to testify before the panel this week, but through a spokesman he declined, citing his constitutional right not to incriminate himself. That has led many to look abroad, to the International Criminal Court, which is investigating the drug war and is expected to take some action against Mr. Duterte.

Reymie Bayunon’s 7-year-old son, Jefferson, was fatally shot in the town of Caloocan in April 2019 after, Ms. Bayunon said, he witnessed a murder in their neighborhood. She sued the police, but said she skipped court after being threatened by a group of officers.

Ms Bayunon has a simple message for the Philippine authorities: “I call on you to cooperate with the ICC because this is the only chance we have to get justice,” she said.

Although Mr. Duterte has taken full responsibility for the drug war, he has insisted that he would never be tried in an international court. He has said that there are three million drug addicts in the Philippines, adding: “I would like to slaughter them.”

Six years ago, he ordered the Philippines’ withdrawal from the ICC, which has refused to comment on its investigation of Mr. Duterte. It is unclear whether the Philippine government would force Mr. Duterte to surrender if he were faced with an ICC arrest warrant. The court cannot try suspects in absentia.

Mr. Duterte’s successor, President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr., at times appeared to backtrack on an earlier promise to shield him from international investigation. In December, Mr. Marcos’s government allowed ICC officials investigating Mr. Duterte to enter the Philippines to continue their work, an official familiar with the process said.

One of the cases the ICC is expected to pursue is another complaint against police in Caloocan, north of Manila. Less than three months after Mr. Duterte was inaugurated in 2016, a group of police stormed into Mary Ann Domingo’s small apartment and led most of the family outside.

The last time she saw her partner, Luis Bonifacio, alive, he was kneeling on the ground with his arms raised. Her son Gabriel, 19, remained inside to plead for his father’s life and was also shot dead. Mrs. Domingo later saw their bodies in hospital.

Since 2017, she has filed a complaint against the civil servants with the National Ombudsman.

On June 18, a judge ruled that the four police officers who took part in the operation were guilty of manslaughter.

The court heard the findings of a forensic pathologist, Dr. Raquel Fortun, who examined the Bonifacios’ remains and told the court that she found multiple gunshot wounds.

As the verdict was read, Mrs. Domingo cried on the shoulder of one of her sons. The four officers stood next to her, looking at the ground.

“I am grateful to the judge because I finally feel that there can be justice,” Ms. Domingo said after the verdict. But she added: “The ICC is still needed because we need justice for every victim of the drug war.”

In the background are tensions between Mr. Duterte and Mr. Marcos. The current president came to power after forging an alliance with Duterte’s daughter, Sara Duterte. But in the months since, things have changed. This month, Ms. Duterte resigned as education minister in Mr. Marcos’ cabinet. Mr. Marcos and his allies, the Dutertes argue without evidence, want the president to increase his grip on power by amending the constitution. The two men exchanged barbs about the other using drugs.

Duterte has burnished his reputation for law and order as mayor of Davao, a southern city where hundreds of people have been killed by gunmen linked to the authorities, also under investigation by the ICC.

Within days of Mr. Duterte becoming president, people like Vincent Go, a freelance news photographer, noticed a change. Mr. Go, who worked nights in the Manila area, received reports of 10 to 20 crime scenes per night, an astronomical increase in violence. Mr. Go continued to see the same types of environments: dead-end alleys, often without surveillance cameras or witnesses. Rusty guns were often left next to the bodies.

The government’s story in such cases was almost always the same: When arrested, suspected drug users fought back and officers had to shoot in self-defense.

Mr. Go eventually documented more than 900 crime scenes during Mr. Duterte’s presidency, sharing photos of handcuffed bodies and others with multiple gunshot wounds. He pointed to one and said, “He was shot five times in the head.”

“How can someone who fights back be shot five times in the head?” said Mr. Go.

Dr. Fortun, who examined 109 bodies exhumed at the behest of a Catholic priest, the Rev. Flaviano Villanueva, and the victims’ families, said she saw multiple shots to the head and torso.

“In other words, they were shot,” said Dr. Fortun, the only pathologist in the Philippines to have examined the remains of those killed during the drug war.

Tens of thousands were arrested on drug charges during Mr. Duterte’s campaign, which had promised to go after drug lords and other high-profile dealers. But many of the dead, human rights groups say, were poor and working-class men and boys.

Mr. Duterte’s camp has reiterated that the ICC has no jurisdiction in the Philippines because the prosecutor only conducted its investigation after Mr. Duterte withdrew his country from the treaty that created the court in 2019. Mr. Marcos’s positions are unclear: in November he said he was considering returning to the court, but in March he reiterated that the ICC no jurisdiction above his country.

“The remedy for alleged victims is to file their complaints in Philippine courts,” said former Duterte spokesman Harry Roque.

On a recent Thursday, Dr. Fortun to summarize what could have happened to Jay-Ar Jumola, a 21-year-old construction worker who was murdered by unknown men in an alley in the town of Navotas in June 2019.

Pointing to a hole in Mr Jumola’s skull, she said: “That is suspicious for an entry wound. Another thing that catches my attention is this stain, the green stain on the inner surface of the skull. It suggests oxidation of something metallic.”

Mr. Go, the photographer, recorded Mr. Jumola’s death and tracked down a witness, who told him that Mr. Jumola was on his knees when he was shot.

“He saw the blood gushing out and Jay-Ar begging for his life,” Mr. Go said. “And the police didn’t care and just shot him.”

Two of Mr. Jumola’s half-brothers suffered a similar fate. In February 2017, Anthony Ocdin, 23, was also murdered by unknown men in Navotas. He was found with masking tape around his head and a sign on his body that read: “Don’t imitate me, I’m a drug dealer.” Nearly five years later, Angelo Ocdin, 28, was shot in the back by four men in Manila’s Tondo neighborhood.

Ms Jumola said she now fears for her surviving children.

Referring to Mr Duterte, she said: “We want him imprisoned because he ordered the killing of innocent people.”

Marlise Simons contributed reporting from Paris.

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